Mental illness is growing at an exponential rate in Trinidad and Tobago and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are to be blamed.

This is the view of Head of the Psychiatric Unit at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt Hope, Professor Dr Gerard Hutchinson, who says the centre has been receiving an increase in patients presenting with more sleep problems, psychosomatic presentations and more anxiety and depression.

Hutchinson said suicidal ideations also seemed to be on the rise in the younger population and although this has not yet fully translated into behaviour, he expects it will.

Hutchinson commented while responding to questions from Guardian Media about what mental and emotional effect the recently implemented State of Emergency (SoE) could have on the population, who is already experiencing COVID-19 fatigue, and whether the SoE and an extended period of such measures can worsen the effect.

He said people were now tired, fearful, anxious, worried and concerned about the future and the SoE has fitted conveniently into that narrative.

Hutchinson noted, however, that there was also an increasing cynicism and distrust over the governmental measures which need to be addressed.

“Any sense that your freedom is being monitored and curtailed leads to a greater sense of desperation and might impact on behaviour. Substance use, violence and defiance may also increase in response to that desperation,” Hutchison warned.

Endocrinologist Dr Joel Teelucksingh agreed with Hutchinson’s view that the effects of COVID-19 had exacerbated mental health issues.

He said a recent US study revealed four in ten adults were now struggling with mental health or substance use (highest in 18-24 years) and one in ten considered suicide, with one in five being essential workers.

“Indeed, anxiety and depression symptoms were three times more common than in 2019,” Teelucksingh told Guardian Media. But he advised some ways in which people could manage their mental health at this time.

“Daily routines including restructuring your mental state to accept the new norms, counselling, exercise, meditation, yoga, telephone calls, limited “screen time,” reduced alcohol intake and even antidepressants from your doctor are essential components of management,” he said.

Speaking on the effects the current SoE could have on mental health, Teelucksingh said a key difference with this SoE, when compared to the SoEs of 2011 and during the 1990 attempted coup, was that regulations were to reduce transmission of the virus.

He, however, does not agree with the ban on outdoor exercising, as he said this could help in reducing the deleterious effects of the pandemic currently being experienced and stressed outdoor exercising would not contribute to spread.

During Saturday’s COVID-19 media update, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said the SoE would remain until July 4, noting they will make adjustments based on how the public reacts to the measure and the country achieves a reduction in COVID cases and deaths.

Even with the SoE heading into its second week, however, T&T recorded 509 new cases and 17 deaths on Saturday and 573 cases and 10 deaths Sunday.

The possible extension has received mixed views from the public, with some of the belief it is a necessary sacrifice, while others say it will be mentally taxing.

Shirley Wickham, a single mother of three, described the nation as being in one big prison.

She said the coronavirus had already taken away so much from life and living and it seemed governments everywhere were just playing “trial and error” with the lives of people who were already feeling mentally stifled.

“I don’t think anybody in authority really know how to deal with this virus. I applaud their efforts but what’s wrong with just honestly admitting you don’t really know how to fight this virus, instead of constantly imposing some unnecessary restrictions that are further distressing people mentally.

“Does this country have the infrastructure to deal with the wave of mental illness that’s coming after this pandemic?” she asked.

A construction worker who spoke anonymously said since the shutdown, he has been like a fish out of water.

He said he has been going through depression and has even contemplated doing the “worst,” adding it is only because that would leave his sons without a father he has put the thought out of his mind.

“It real hard, sistren. I not no rich fella, but ah does work and save meh ‘lil money and ting to see about meh chirren.

“But is only so much I have in my savings. Last year done drain meh and now….boy. I know de government keep saying dey doing this to lower de numbers, but like nobody nuh studying wha really going on wid de people who out ah wuk,” he said in a despondent tone.

“We under real stress, dan. And yuh cyah say yuh doing a lil hustle anywhere because everywhere close and is curfew too.”

However, small business owner Shirlana Caton believes the lockdown and curfew are for the greater good.

“I’m struggling as a small business owner and I would admit it is hard and depressing, but think about how much worse it could be if we don’t do something.

“We have to do something, otherwise most of us would not even have a business to run again,” she opined.

Racine Peters, a nail technician, agreed with Caton, saying simply: “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”